‘‘Servant of the Underworld is basically an historical fantasy. I was trying to merge a lot of genres. The idea is they’re fantasy novels set in Aztec times, and the premise is, what if the mythology that the Aztecs believed was real? You really can do magic with blood sacrifices. At the same time there’s a strong undercurrent of mystery because the main character is sort of a forensic priest – he examines dead bodies to see if there’s magical foul play involved.

‘‘I spent about half the time brainstorming and half the time writing the book, and most of the brainstorming was research. I mostly used research that was done by academics, based on surviving pictograms and on the texts the Spanish left, but obviously they have a strong bias. Sometimes they meant well, but a lot of it is pretty biased against the Aztecs because the Spanish wanted to justify their conquest. But then you have The Florentine Codex, written maybe 40 or 50 years after the fall of the Aztec empire, by one of the friars who was really concerned about the local culture being wiped out, and who wanted to preserve as much of it as he could. The problems he faced were language barriers, the fact that the actual culture had been strongly affected by Spanish culture for the last decades, and the fact that he didn’t know much about what he was writing about. Even if his language skills had been perfect, there’s a strong likelihood that he would have distorted the Aztec history because there are basic communication issues between the cultures.

‘‘I mainly did what I could and hoped for the best. I discarded the bits that were too obviously biased, like the bits that sounded too obviously Christian. You learn a lot by seeing the Aztec proverbs, the way they put the words together, the images they used, and the metaphors. There’s one metaphor they have about fruit falling. As a person raised in the West, you would see a tree that bears fruit as a positive thing, but for the Aztecs the falling fruit represents a fall from grace. The fruit falls from the tree because it’s rotten.”

‘‘If you consciously try to teach people a lesson, then it shows. If they agree with your lesson, you aren’t going to teach them much, and if they strongly disagree, they’re going to put the book or the story down. But every piece of fiction is a political act, and every single bias, every single opinion that you carry, makes its way onto the page, even if it’s not conscious. Some other writers and I were having a discussion online about escapism. The whole idea, for instance, that you can go off and have adventures and get the girl at the end, is a kind of escapism that appeals to a very specific kind of person, and shows certain biases. Even fluff is written by people with particular opinions. So when you say, ‘This is fluff and it has no meaning,’ what you’re really saying is that it doesn’t challenge the culture’s dominant attitude. I don’t consciously set out to teach people lessons with my fiction, but sometimes I write when I’m feeling really angry, or really depressed, and those feelings inevitably show up. Especially with short fiction it’s very powerful to set your story in a moment on a fulcrum where things change – the convergence point. A short story has to be compact enough to punch.”

‘‘I was working on my trilogy for a fairly long time, and then I took a break and worked on the novella, On a Red Station, Drifting. With the novels, I was working on Master of the House of Darts, which is the last book in a trilogy, and you know by the last book of a trilogy mostly where you are going – it’s not like you can suddenly decide you’re going to change characters or change the entire concept. So when I was writing On A Red Station, Drifting, I thought, ‘Let’s do something completely different for a change’. It took me seven or eight months to actually work out how to do the different thing! I don’t use my family stories directly in my fiction because that makes me very uncomfortable. The family history of most Vietnamese in the past 30 or 40 years is a long tragedy. It’s hard, and at the same time it makes me feel as though I’m selling my own family history for money, or for fame, or whatever. It’s not my story to tell. I don’t do so much research though, because most of the history is familiar. The main problem I have to deal with is making that history come across to people that are not so familiar with it. When I wrote the first draft of On A Red Station, Drifting I based it on Imperial Vietnam and what I imagined would happen in the future, and one of the major problems I had when I ran it past my crit group was that people didn’t understand what was going on at all. Most of it was really obvious for me, and it didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t make sense to most people, so I had to really streamline the story. Again, it comes down to a choice: how much do you want to dumb it down so that people who are outsiders to the culture get it, without dumbing it down so much that it’s unrecognizable? It’s a tricky balance to strike. I keep explaining things like what fish sauce is, and most Vietnamese laugh at me because they know already.”